Sunday, May 2, 2010

Islamists take Somalian town where British couple are held

The Chandlers, from Tunbridge Wells in Kent, have been held in or near the pirate stronghold of Haradheere for most of the time since being abducted while sailing between the Seychelles and Tanzania last October.

However, Hizb-ul Islam, a hard line insurgent group, took control of the town on Sunday, according to local residents.

Haradheere, some 250 miles north east of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, is one of the country's most important centres for pirates.

The arrival of the group in the town could endanger more than 300 hostages that the pirates are currently holding in the area, including the Chandlers.

Pirates usually release hostages unharmed after a ransom is paid whereas militants are more interested in ideological killings, according to analysts.

One resident, Mohamed Hussein, said of the militants: "They have entered the town now. Their fighters are in every street.

"They came with 14 battlewagons. Many pirates fled with cars from the town."

The militants met no resistance from the pirates, according to reports.

Those holding the Chandlers moved them into a forest last Tuesday as militants from another group, al-Shabaab, approached the town.

Maslah Yare, the leader of the gang, said the pirates would abandon the Chandlers if the militants get too close.

"Our lives are more important to us than holding on to them," he said.

Neither Hizb-ul Islam nor al Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab rebels have been directly involved in piracy, a business that has flourished in the absence of strong government and any rule of law in the Horn of Africa.

The pirates are understood to fear that the Islamists will shut down their operations.

Both sides have until now tolerated each others' separate agendas, but residents in Haradheere are thought to have grown tired of the pirates' operations, which have benefited only a minority.

The gang holding Paul and Rachel Chandler, aged 60 and 56 respectively, are hiding in rural areas at least 20 miles north-west of Haradheere, and are believed not to have moved the couple.

But there are fears that some factions in Hizb-ul Islam see the Chandlers as a high-profile prize whose capture will give them a propaganda coup to further their anti-Western campaign.

For now there are no plans for the couple, said Mohamed Osman, spokesman for Hizb-ul Islam in Mogadishu.

"We have no intentions about these British people, we are in Haradheere only because the people invited us there to help them restore some order," he said.

However, if a fight for control of the town - or the Chandlers - were to break out, the Islamists are seen as more powerful as they are better armed and better coordinated.

A Foreign Office spokesman said they had heard no recent word on the location or safety of the Chandlers.

The couple were abducted last October, about 60 miles from Victoria in the Seychelles.

It later emerged that from a Royal Navy vessel, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Wave Knight, had come within 50ft of the Chandlers during the abduction, but had been under orders not to fire for fear that the pirates could have executed the couple.

Initially the gang demanded more than £4 million for their release, a sum way beyond the family's means. The British Government has refused to discuss paying the pirates, saying to do so would encourage further kidnappings.


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